Quick Connect: The First Call

Steve is a long-time friend and owner of a business that sells parts to commercial kitchens. Like a warehouse-distributor, Steve buys direct from the manufacturer and sells to the end user. His customers range from mom-and-pop lunch counters to giant convention centers that serve thousands of meals at one sitting. They buy bottle openers, walk-in freezer compressors, door gaskets, evaporator coils and other replacement parts to keep their kitchen equipment going.

We meet for breakfast once a week and often talk about work. Recently he described a telephone conversation that sounded familiar. A first-time caller was looking for a part, and somehow he had found the manufacturer’s unit price. He didn’t understand why they wouldn’t sell to him, why he had to buy from ‘a middle man.’ Steve explained: “The manufacturer sells only in quantity. Instead of hiring salesmen to deal with every kitchen in America, they sell to me and I deal with the end user.”

Steve’s prices are not the lowest for many of his products, but he’s the first call for most of his long-time customers. That’s because Steve works hard to make sure he’s the only call they need to make, whether they’re buying parts or making a warranty claim. “People don’t mind paying a little more if they get what they want. And they want more than parts.” Steve said customers want his knowledge, his ability to find alternate sources, and his honest opinion about products. They want a consultant who can advise them before they buy.

Steve said he can always tell when a first-time caller has tried to buy from a manufacturer’s website. “All they care about is price; they never ask about quality or even warranty. Just price.” When I asked Steve if he shops on Amazon.com, he said that’s different. “I’m not selling books or golf clubs, I’m selling to pros who operate commercial kitchens. They should understand the difference.”

I reminded him that when he first started his business, he had to train his customers, and they had to train him too. I reminded him that only experience can teach us that commercial sales relationships are based on performance and trust, not just price. Steve asked how a guy who writes about tools can understand so much about commercial sales. I replied, “my readers have trained me too.”